Naval capabilities

radar, which makes small vessels considerably more appealing for parsimonious defence reviewers and cash-strapped finance ministers. In the same vein, increased firepower now means that small ships can look after themselves.

The development of modern technologies like high-precision weapons and communication systems reduces the need for larger vessels.

seems fair. Despite its bijou proportions, after all, the ship comes with an impressive list of weapons. That includes machine guns, naval artillery and EXOCET missiles. The new model even comes with a helipad. And if you were in any doubt about the MMPV’s purpose, Mihaylov explicitly links it to the new focus on coastlines. “We realised that successful defence of the littoral,” he emphasises, “is not always a matter of maintaining large and costly fleets – but rather relying on small, agile and hard-to-detect vessels.” Though the MMPV is one of the most striking examples of this shift, Bulgaria is far from alone in investing in smaller ships. In Scandinavia, for instance, the Royal Norwegian Navy is updating its Skjold-class coastal corvettes, increasing their firepower and making them cheaper to maintain. Further afield, US planners are pressing ahead with the Light Amphibious Ship, expressly designed to land marines on rocky islands in the South China Sea – exactly the kinds of hotspots that might eventually force the Pentagon into skirmishes with Beijing. Beyond geopolitical pressures, Clark suggests these developments are being prodded along by better technology. “It means that these small ships can be pretty capable,” he says. Mihaylov makes a similar point. “The development of more modern technologies like smart high-precision weapons, communication equipment and systems for maritime situational awareness lead to another decrease in the need for larger vessels.”


The cost of the HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales aircraft carriers for the Royal Navy.

Global Defence Technology 60

The proliferation of cutting-edge technology also makes smaller ships cheaper to build. To explain what he means, Clark takes the example of vertical launching systems (VLSs), which can fire missiles from cells mounted onto vessels. “They’ve refined the manufacturing process to the point where it’s actually quite inexpensive to put a VLS on a ship,” he explains. “And then you’ve just got to buy the missiles. So, the ship itself doesn’t have to be that sophisticated, because the missile carrier is sophisticated.” That’s true of other equipment, like

An empty vessel Taking this principle further still, some navies are even investigating the feasibility of unmanned – or indeed totally autonomous – vessels. One of the most interesting projects here is the UK’s PAC24. First tested in 2019, it was controlled from a nearby frigate. That might not sound like much – until you realise that this was perhaps the first time in the Royal Navy’s 475-year history that one of its vessels has sailed without a single sailor aboard. Across the Atlantic, meanwhile, the US Navy is pursuing its own programme. From a port in Virginia, for instance, it recently showcased the Common Unmanned Surface Vehicle (CUSV). Armed with sensors and cameras, it’s perfect for catching smugglers. A remote machine gun also makes it suitable for more strenuous activity. Another US system, for its part, is being built for minesweeping, all part of what Clark calls a “really versatile” set of options. With so much activity, might the Jutland of our century be fought by unmanned vessels, their crews in some bunker miles away – or even totally autonomous ships that sail and fight without any human interference. Clark is unsure. Though he says that small, unmanned boats are “starting to emerge”, he emphasises that a ghost ship battle royale is still a way off. For starters, there’s the question of maritime law. At the moment, an unmanned ship can be legally boarded and taken if it’s in international waters. That obviously poses problems for unmanned vessels whatever their size. The law can be tweaked, of course – but what about more practical challenges? A militarised dinghy might be simple to maintain, but frigates and destroyers often come with a host of technical hitches. Without a permanent crew to make repairs, these ships risk breaking down, floating helplessly until they’re captured by the enemy. Once again, Clark suggests technology might offer a solution. He imagines a world where, if an unmanned ship is boarded, key systems could be disabled remotely. In the worst-case scenario, vessels could even sink themselves if threatened. Mihaylov agrees, but stresses that it’s too early to really know how unmanned ships will fare in the heat of battle. “We will only have a clear picture of their real capabilities,” he says, “after their mass adoption and prolonged exploitation”. While the world shepherded in by the dreadnoughts seems numbered, in other words, we should probably expect sailors and gunners to crowd ships like the Nimitz for just a while longer. ●

Defence & Security Systems International /

Bulgarian Navy

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